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Israel’s latest strike carries risks

Fight to fend off Hezbollah shifts to Lebanese turf

– Israel has opened a new front in its attempts to halt weapons smuggling to Hezbollah, striking one of the group’s positions inside Lebanon for the first time since the sides fought a war eight years ago.

This week’s airstrike, meant to prevent the Islamic militant group from obtaining sophisticated missiles, is part of a risky policy that could easily backfire by triggering retaliation. But at a time when the Syrian opposition says Hezbollah has struck a major blow for President Bashar Assad’s government in neighboring Syria by ambushing al-Qaida-linked fighters there, it shows the strategic importance for Israel of trying to break the Syria-Hezbollah axis.

For now, the odds of a direct conflagration between Israel and Hezbollah appear low. The group has sent hundreds of fighters to Syria and is preoccupied with saving Assad’s embattled regime. Syrian state media reported that army troops killed 175 rebels, many of them al-Qaida-linked fighters, near Damascus on Wednesday, but the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Hezbollah forces carried out the dawn ambush.

Israel considers both Hezbollah and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front to be grave threats. With a lack of good choices, Israel has avoided taking sides in the Syrian war, and in the short term, is content watching the two sides beat each other up. But in the long run, officials have expressed concerns about the battlefield expertise that Hezbollah has gained. Officials also suspect that despite repeated Israeli airstrikes on suspected arms shipments, Hezbollah has managed to get its hands on sophisticated weapons, including Russian-made anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles, ensuring that any future conflict with Israel will be far more intense than previous rounds of fighting.

“The type of scenario we have to plan for is extremely robust,” said an Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing an intelligence assessment. “It means the Israeli operational response has to be forceful, swift and decisive.”

Israel and Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Shiite group committed to Israel’s destruction, battled to a stalemate during a war in the summer of 2006. Both sides have avoided any direct confrontation since a U.N.-brokered cease-fire ended the fighting, but each has been gearing up for renewed clashes.

Hezbollah rained 4,000 rockets and missiles on Israel in 2006, mostly short-range, unguided projectiles. Israel believes the group now possesses 100,000 rockets and missiles. These include weapons capable of striking anywhere in Israel. The weapons come from Syria and Iran.

“Iran is handing out torches to the pyromaniacs,” said Israel’s military chief, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz. “I suggest that everyone keeps in mind that underneath this quiet, a storm is brewing.”

Israel believes Hezbollah has used the fighting in Syria as cover to transfer weapons back to Lebanon. Israeli leaders have repeatedly vowed to prevent Hezbollah from obtaining weapons that could alter the current balance of power, and over the past year Israel has carried out a series of covert airstrikes in Syria that targeted shipments of weapons believed to be bound for Hezbollah.

Neither Israel nor Syria nor Hezbollah had confirmed any of the airstrikes, since going public might only escalate tensions. This changed after Monday’s attack, the first inside Lebanon itself.

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